Yes, There Are Bacteria on Your Kitchen Towel. No, They Won't Make You Sick

A person drying dishes with a kitchen towel.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Your kitchen towel may harbor a number of different bacteria, a new study finds. But does that mean your towel can actually make you sick?

Although the new finding may sound gross, it doesn't mean you should ditch your kitchen towel; experts said the bacteria found on the towels in this study aren't particularly concerning when it comes to foodborne illnesses.

For the study, the researchers gathered 100 kitchen towels from families. The scientists took samples from the towels — which had been used, without being washed, for one month — and cultured, or grew, these samples in lab dishes. The study found that 49 percent of the towels tested positive for bacteria and that the amount of bacteria was higher for towels used by large families or families with children, compared with towels used by smaller families or families without children. [Top 7 Germs in Food that Make You Sick]

In addition, towels used for multiple purposes — including wiping utensils, drying hands and wiping surfaces — grew more bacteria than towels used for a single purpose, the researchers found. And damp towels grew more bacteria than dry towels, according to the study, which was presented Saturday (June 9) at the American Society for Microbiology meeting in Atlanta.

Of the towel samples that tested positive for bacteria, about 73 percent grew types of bacteria found in human intestines, including E. coli and Enterococcus species. About 14 percent grew Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, a bacterium that's sometimes found on people's skin. Although staph bacteria usually don't cause illness in healthy people, when the bacterium gets into food, it can product toxins that can cause food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers recommended against multipurpose usage of kitchen towels and said that larger families "should be especially vigilant [when it comes] to hygiene in the kitchen," lead study author Dr. Susheela Biranjia-Hurdoyal, a senior lecturer in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Mauritius, said in a statement.

Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said the study gives us a look at what bacteria are in the environment around us. But "it doesn't surprise me at all that something that's in a kitchen environment has bacteria on it. We really do live in a world that's dominated by microorganisms," Chapman told Live Science.

As for the bacteria found in the study "what's listed here doesn't initially raise concerns with me," Chapman said. The study didn't find any of the common culprits of foodborne illness, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter or pathogenic types of E. coli, such as E. coli O157:H7, he noted.

Although staph can indeed cause foodborne illness when it's found in food, the bacterium is also very common on skin. "The fact that it's [on] the towel isn't as concerning as [it being in] food," Chapman said.

Still, Chapman said that, in theory, kitchen towels could aid in the spread of foodborne illness. This could happen if, for instance, someone used a kitchen towel to wipe up meat juices from the counter and another person unknowingly used the towel to dry their hands, Chapman said. (However, the data from the study didn't show that this was happening.)

Chapman recommended frequently washing and drying kitchen towels to prevent bacterial growth.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.